From the January 2014 issue

Equinox energy and emptiness

Our vast universe possesses all the energy it's ever going to have.
By | Published: January 27, 2014

This month brings the equinox. On the 20th at 12:57 p.m. EDT, the Sun hovers over the equator in South America. There’s approximate day/night equality everywhere. In Woodstock, New York, a 20-minute drive from my home, the equinox is associated with the word energy, as in: “Earth’s energy is now balanced.”

There really is a kind of balance on the equinox. The symmetry comes from Earth’s terminator — the line separating day from night — crossing both poles on the 20th. (Thanks to refraction caused by our atmosphere, they both bask in full sunlight that day, with no night in either place).

On the equinox alone, each spot on our spinning world meets the terminator perpendicularly. The result: Everyone sees a due-east sunrise and a due-west sunset. Moreover, it’s the sole midday occasion when the Sun’s distance from the overhead point equals your latitude. Say you live in Los Angeles or Sydney, whose latitudes are 34°; that day, the Sun hovers 34° from straight up. At the equator, latitude 0°, the Sun hits the zenith. Cool stuff.

But back to that Woodstock energy business. Although more an expensive artsy tourist mecca than a hippie hangout, locals sometimes use New Age vernacular and say things like, “Everything is energy.”

Oddly enough, it’s true. Everything is energy.

Physicists used to believe in many types of energy. Chemical, electrical, radiant — it was a long list. Nowadays, science says all the unfolding activity we see is kinetic energy, the energy of motion. Consider heat: Is this a distinct energy variety? It certainly has power. Heat raises gas pressure that can drive pistons. But “heat” is just our word for atoms in motion. A hot object merely has faster-moving particles. Once again, it’s all kinetic energy.

Whether the universe is finite or infinite, it possesses all the energy it’s ever going to have. It never decreases. This seems counterintuitive only because energy appears to get depleted. Our car’s gas gives the vehicle power, and eventually the fuel’s gone. In reality, the tires warm the road a bit, some heat goes out the tailpipe or wafts from the hot engine, and it all warms the atmosphere. None is gone.


Moreover, there seems to exist an unimaginably vast underlying energy field, sometimes called vacuum energy or zero-point energy, that pervades the cosmos. Ever since physicists first noticed the Casimir effect in 1948, whereby two suspended metal plates dangling close together are mysteriously pushed into each other by some outside force, evidence has accumulated that makes this universal energy matrix seem more likely than not.

Finally, even inert solids like rocks are actually immense energy clumps because matter and energy are equivalent. A single pencil eraser weighing 1 gram contains the same energy released in the larger of the two atomic bombs that fell on Japan in 1945. Thus, energy is ubiquitous.

All this energy unfolds spontaneously. Orbiting planets, mutating thunderstorm clouds, and scurrying mice all effortlessly exhibit this endless power. There are no separate events. Our minds alone, trying to understand what’s going on, create the boundaries between activities. It’s all actually interconnected.

People generally see themselves as sources of energy separate from the universe. But Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th-century philosopher who deeply influenced Albert Einstein, liked to say, “A man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.” He didn’t believe in discrete personal power and insisted our lives unfold spontaneously.

Physics supports this. Indeed, Einstein — expressing an outlook at odds with Western sensibilities — repeatedly averred that free will is an illusion. Most readers would probably dispute Einstein and claim they do have free will. But maybe they can’t help thinking and saying that.

We also can’t help dividing the cosmos into various theaters of action. Pockets of separate energy seem logical because our solar system is so isolated. How lonely are we? Make a scale model with Earth as an invisible dust mote. The Sun — only 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) away — would be the period at the end of this sentence. The nearest star is another dot 4.3 miles (6.9 kilometers) distant. Breathtaking emptiness.

On this scale, the diameter of our galaxy would extend halfway to the Moon. Thus, even when our planet is too tiny to see, the model itself assumes astronomical proportions. A galaxy is like billions of sand grains, each separated by miles from its nearest neighbor.

Astronomy is accustomed to such huge separations. Nonetheless, cosmic rays from the rest of the universe penetrate our bodies, cause genetic mutations, and keep changing Earth’s biosphere. Our biological evolution began in the far corners of the cosmos. All energies are interconnected.

They love this kind of talk in Woodstock — especially on the equinox.

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